EUGENE ‘Nudie’ Hughes never hid in the shadows during his playing career, and he’s not about to stop now.
While not every day is a good day, by and large Hughes maintains a remarkably positive outlook on life, four years after being diagnosed with liver and colon cancer.
When interviewed for this piece for a retrospective on his remarkable playing career (he was the first Ulster player to win three All-Stars), he was unwinding the morning after an important day of tests. That he was happy to chat at quite some length about kicking a ball about a pitch says all that needs to be said about the spirit of the man.
On his ongoing battle, Hughes said: “I’m lucky to have a great partner and family, but I have my ups and downs. In GAA terms I’m playing against the wind and I’m waiting for the second half. I’ve had a few setbacks but I keep positive.
“I met up with a few friends at an ‘Ulster legends’ event at St John’s recently, it’s an annual charity golf meet. I’m not the only player going through it, I’m possibly just a bit more high profile than some of them. I told them it was only the first half, that was my words of confidence to the boys.
“There’s new drugs coming out all the time and hopefully I’ll be successful in getting some of those drugs. Until that time comes I’ll be there and I’ll line out every day, that’s my motto.
“I’ve been in treatment for four years now and it’s tough but my positivity keeps me going. I get tired and when I was on the heaviest chemo it affected my skin and in other respects.
“I get regular phone calls from Ulster GAA players I used to play against and that gives me a bit of a lift. There’s always someone worse off so I’m very thankful to be out and about and talking to people.”
One thing that certainly hasn’t suffered is his memory. Hughes, who grew up in a large family even by the standards of the day (he was one of 14 siblings), holds an almost photographic recollection of his days in a Monaghan and Castleblayney jersey. He grew up in an era when Monaghan football was in the doldrums, wistfully harking back to their last Ulster Championship title in 1938. But, as it is today, it’s a football-mad county and Hughes was obsessed from an early age.
“When my neighbour came to visit my mother, we were like rats in a corner, we were straight out the door. That was the only chance as the rest of the time you were given jobs to do around the house.
“We played football on what we called the ‘commons’, a gravel area about 40×30 yards. We played football around the clock and the football didn’t stop us.
“In those days it was just football and hurling. It was my past-time but it was almost like a profession when I got older. Dessie Mulligan trained around the clock, he was on the 1979 team that made the breakthrough and I took my lead from him. Even though I worked on building sites and everything, there was hardlu a day that went by that I didn’t go for a run.
“The best way of describing my life as a handy-man, I was at every job you could think of from shovelling shite to being a salesman. I mainly did building and butchering, and in between times football was always colliding. When I got injured the work still need to be done.
“In 1986 I ended up in Bass Brewers and I worked successfully until 1999. It was 23 years of living the dream, I never worked a day in my life. When you enjoy something it’s not work.”
Hughes made his Monaghan senior debut as a teenager in their 1975/6 National League campaign. The first few seasons weren’t anything to write home about, but Sean McCague, a major factor in Scotstown’s club success at the time, was appointed to the role in 1979 and he made an immediate impact.
“It was a learning curve for me, and when I first came in, part of the problem was that it was very cliquey and club players tended only to pass the ball to their clubmates. There was no balance to the team.
“We’d five selectors at the time, and the great thing about that was, if one of them took you off and you asked who did it, they’d always pass the buck to the next one.
“We had some good players coming through and playing on Railway Cup teams, but it started to take shape when Sean McCague came in. it was only a matter of getting a bit of mortar and sticking it all together.”
That said, McCague still had a significant job on his hands. They were rated a miserly 26th out of 32 in a national poll at the time, but he got to work straight away and Monaghan ended up winning their first Ulster title in 41 years in 1979.
It was a momentous achievement and Hughes more than played his part as an unorthodox corner-back with a habit of standing off his man (and indeed, he’s one of only seven players who have won All-Stars as both defender and forward). There was method to his madness, he explains.
“When you’re growing up on the street, your job is to win the ball and it didn’t matter about anyone else. If the ball was launched in, and you’re smart enough to distract your man by chatting to him, you were always one step ahead. There were days I got it wrong but usually it worked in my favour.
“Playing street football really helped, I think we introduced Riverdance because you were avoiding tackles left, right and centre, you had to be very quick on your feet. If you were on the ball you’d get smacked and end up on the gravel. You couldn’t go home and complain to your mother, you had to learn for the next day. I worked hard on it and I was good at looking up and soloing the ball, seeing who was ahead of me. There were other players from back in the day who could do that as well, like Grey Blaney, Eamon McEnaney, Peter Canavan.”
Hughes had grown accustomed to supporting other Ulster teams in Croke Park (he’s a firm believer in supporting your province) but the Farney had their moment in the spotlight as they ended a four-decade wait in 1979. They beat the reigning champions Down and Armagh en route to reaching the Ulster final, winning convincingly on a scoreline of 1-15 to 0-11.
“We played Down on my home patch (Castleblayney) in the first round. I remember McCague giving a speech and it was all very pleasant and plausible. Being a ‘Blayney man, I knew every sound would carry through and the referee’s dressing room was next door.
“We all ran out but suddenly we were called back in and Sean said ‘this is ‘Blayney, this is our home patch, I don’t want to see one man backing down today.’ I think it changed our whole outlook and we beat Down. It was a heavy battle and I remember the headline the next day, it said it was war without the bullets. There were supposed to be legs broken and all sorts but it wasn’t the case, although there were a lot of bruises all right.
“The atmosphere was electric in the county and we’d Armagh in the semi-finals. Castleblayney is a border town and a lot of people live here from Armagh. It was an absolutely savage game – it wasn’t dirty but man it was tough. Gerry O’Neill was over them, he was a chatterbox on the line. There was great respect there and I think those two games stood to us when we got over Donegal in the final.”
The county was at fever pitch for their All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry. Monaghan were badly exposed by Kerry’s speed and know-how and they traipsed off the pitch having shipped a 5-14 to 0-7 hammering.
“In all honesty we were superstars around the county before the Kerry game, it was an unbelievable experience. It was a great time for Monaghan people as they’d been starved off success.
“Kerry were a great team but they only really had to play two games and they were in an All-Ireland final. You had to come through a tough couple of games in Ulster, you’d end up losing two or three players to injury, but it was still fantastic to play on days like those.
“When we had the ball we were fine, but the problem was when they were in possession. I think some of our players were in awe of the situation, playing Kerry in Croke Park. We were like lambs to the slaughter but in hindsight it was a good learning process for the team.”
On a personal level, Hughes, who was only 21 years old, had a great game. He held the legendary John Egan scoreless on the day.
“John could win the ball anywhere but the ball was usually played in front of him and I was able to handle him. I always knew when Paidi Ó Sé got the ball, he was going to let it in. Ger Power and ‘Ogie’ (Denis Moran) would solo before kicking it, but Paidi and Tim (Kennelly) wouldn’t hang around. I was lucky enough to be able to read that. It wasn’t like it is now but we did a bit of background work, we worked on our different strengths and reading the game was one of mine.”
At the time, Nudie Hughes also starred for Ulster’s Railway Cup team. The forward line was almost comically good.
“I loved playing for the province and it was fantastic making the breakthrough under [Down legend] Sean O’Neill in 1980. There were huge crowds at those matches and there were other Monaghan players involved as well, it was a fantastic honour.
“Sean was a serious manager, as was Brian McMcEniff and Art McRory. We’d great times. I remember the forward line was Greg Blaney, Eugene McKenna, Peter McGinnity, Martin McHugh, Frank McGuigan and myself. I’d joke to them that I was the greatest player of the lot of them.
“They were telepathic, I could be running the opposite way and they’d instinctively know I was trying to shake off my marker. The ball would land in front of me, they made football very simple. Every one of those players could kick a ball with both feet, to me it was one of the greatest forward lines every to line out together.”
While Hughes started his career as a teak-tough corner-back, he finished it as an all-action, jack-in-the-box corner-forward whose direct running caused no end of problems for even the most disciplined defenders. He explains how the move came about.
“In the seventies I’d have scored a point or two from corner-back. I remember playing in centre-half back in 1977 against the great Armagh team and Jimmy Smyth gave me a roasting that day, and I was moved to the forward line in that game.
“Then in 1982, some of our great players, like Dessie Mulligan and Sean Hughes had retired, so Sean saw an opportunity for me to play in the forward line and it worked out well.
“My main thing was winning the ball, taking the man on and winning the free. Paul Finlay’s father ‘Jap’ was a brilliant free-taker. My job was getting the ball into the danger zone, taking the man on, and more often than not I won the free or got the score.
“I’d have no problems saying it, I took every advantage I could. Generally the referee would give the advantage to the attacker as long as you were going forward. So I’d get the ball and make a beeline for the black spot, my job was to be within shooting distance and that was something I was good at.”
McCague, who left the post three three times during his 14 years in charge, came back for another lash in the mid-80s. Again, it coincided with an upturn in fortunes for the county. They reached the Centenary Cup in 1984, and 1985 yielded their only ever Division One National League title and another provincial crown.
The team was flying it, and they took Kerry to a replay in the All-Ireland semi-final before losing out by five points in the replay. Hughes says the problem was, when the fat was in the fire, not enough players truly believed they could bring Sam back to Monaghan.
“We were eight points ahead on the first day. I remember John Kennedy shooting for a point and I still have nightmares of it, the ball came off the black spot and before you knew it, the ball was in the net. Some of the players – not all of us – thought ‘that’s it, the onslaught is coming’. We battled hard but the team didn’t believe. That was the difference. Kerry had the right attitude, Tyrone and Down have had it. If you get to those big games you have to believe you’re going to win it. The belief has to be unshakeable and that’s the way I see it.”
On Monaghan’s ongoing quest to reach the promised land, he said: “Monaghan people have been starved of success for donkey years. They’re fantastic supporters but at the end of the day it’s results that count, and our supporters are dying for success. Unfortunately our national titles are rare. We have our Ulster titles but haven’t really stepped up at national level. It’s just one of those things and I suppose you get caught up on it at the time.”
That said, 1985 was still a great year for Monaghan, arguably the most impressive in the county’s history. The National League title was in the bag, the Ulster title, and losing in a replay to Kerry was no great shame.
“The fact the National League was a 32-county title made it a special success for us. With McCague in charge, we didn’t actually over-celebrate it as we had the Ulster Championship coming up. It was a fantastic year for Monaghan and our supporters.
“The Centenary Cup was played in 1984 and it was a great experience as well. Some people said it was a Mickey Mouse tournament, but we’d three matches in Croke Park, one weekend after the other. We’d Meath in the final, that was probably the start of that great Meath team. Monaghan was on a rollercoaster ride going to Croke Park every week, the players grew in stature and became better team players as a result.”
While it was of a good-natured variety, Hughes wasn’t immune to a bit of ‘sledging’, primarily a distraction tactic.
When playing Cavan in an Ulster Championship clash at Clones in 1988, he was marked by a fresh-faced Damian O’Reilly. ‘Nudie’ said to him ‘have you ever seen so many on that Hill, there must be 15 thousand there.’ Damian made the mistake of looking up, and before he could blink, Hughes was gone and he scored a point up the other end of the pitch. He says it was a trick he learnt from John Egan in the 1979 All-Ireland semi-final.
“John Egan did that to me, he said ‘look over there’, and like a stupid wee fella I looked and he got the ball and took off. That’s the last time I ever bought that. You learn all those things while playing the game. It was just a psychological thing, you learn how to out-think your opponent. The way I saw it, when you have the ball you control the game, and luckily enough the other Monaghan players had confidence in me.”
‘Nudie’ had a last hurrah for Monaghan in 1988. They won their third Ulster title in a decade, overcoming Tyrone in the final. Arguably they got the rub of the green as Noel McGinn was denied what looked like a stonewall penalty, while Hughes pounced for a crucial goal in a 1-11 to 0-9 victory.
“We were very lucky to win that one. Raymond Munroe was marking me and it was great craic, I was chatting away to him and scored two points on the trot. I remember a long ball and it came off Aidan Skelton’s chest, I ran in after it. I was partially tripped but I managed to get up and stuck the ball in the net. I remember Sean Donnelly coming up to me and giving me a dig in the ribs and saying ‘there’ll be no more talking now.’ There was none of that stuff with Sean, it was a ding-dong battle between the two of us.
“The game hinged on the Noel McGinn incident. If it was me I’d have laid down, I’d have made a better effort of getting a penalty than he did. If you’re a defender you tend to get back up. They got a point out of it but if he’d have got a penalty and scored, they’d have won the game, there’s no question about that.”
Hughes also had a special career with Castleblayney, winning two Ulster Club medals and a host of county titles. They had a ferocious rivalry with Scotstown but he says that it’s all water under the bridge now.
“I picked up a good few injuries, mostly against Scotstown, but there’s lads from that team who ring me up on a weekly basis. There’s not a week that goes by where Tom Moyna doesn’t ring me up to see how I’m doing. Sean McCrudden’s the same.
“Whatever battles you had on the pitch was left on the pitch. We contested some amount of forwards from 1975 onwards. I’ve nine county medals, six of them were won against Scostown. The respect we have for each other is unequivocal. It was blood and guts but I think both sets of players appreciate the football was of a good standard. I remember when we played in county finals, county boards in surrounding counties wouldn’t put on club games until later in the evening.”
He retired for good in 1991. The mind was willing, the body wasn’t too bad either, but he knew the time had come to move on.
“I quit in 1989 initially. We won the Ulster Club title in 1991 and I was in 90 per cent shape. They asked me back so I did. I didn’t regret it, but the new players didn’t have the same mindset and we weren’t on the same wavelength.
“We’d beaten Kingscourt with the club, and we played Cavan in the championship. Three of their starting defenders and one of their subs were actually from Kingscourt. I thought I’d be able to do a job on them, but it doesn’t happen if your teammates don’t pass the ball the correct way. We were beaten so after that I said it’s not the same and enough was enough.”
‘Nudie’s’ passion for the game is undiluted. It’s more than just a game, and the support from the GAA community in his fight against cancer means the world to him. At the same time, you have to draw a line in the sand, and he has no regrets about Monaghan’s near-misses. On a personal level, his legacy is assured – one of the great footballers to emerge from Ulster, arguably Monaghan’s finest ever, and a gentleman to boot.
“I was very fortunate and I’ve no regrets. You can have regrets about making bad decisions during a game, and we were perhaps unlucky not to get to an All-Ireland final, but you have to move on. You can’t dwell on what might have been – we weren’t good enough on the day against Kerry (in 1979 and 1985) and Cork (in 1988) and that’s it.”